Authors: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Copyright 1932 by Harcourt, Inc.
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Published by arrangement with Editions Gallimard
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Saint-ExupÃ©ry, Antoine de, 1900â1944.
(A Harvest book)
Reprint of the translation of Vol de nuit, originally published by Reynal & Hitchcock, New York.
PZ3.S137Ni10 [PQ2637.A274] 843'.9'12 73-16016
sine qua non
for the air-line companies was to compete in speed with all other systems of transport. In the course of this book RiviÃ¨re, that leader to the manner born, sums up the issues. “It is a matter of life and death for us; for the lead we gain by day on ships and railways is lost each night.” This night serviceâmuch criticized at the start but subsequently, once the experimental stage was over, accepted as a practical propositionâstill involved at the time of this narrative considerable risks. For to the impalpable perils of all air routes and their manifold surprises accrued the night's dark treachery. I hasten to add that, great though these risks still are, they are growing daily less, for each successive trip facilitates and improves the prospects of the next one. Aviation, like the exploration of uncharted lands, has its early heroic age and “Night Flight,” which describes the tragic adventure of one of these pioneers of the air sounds naturally enough the authentic epic note.
The hero of “Night Flight,” though human through and through, rises to superhuman heights of valor. The quality which I think delights one most of all in this stirring narrative is its nobility. Too well we know man's failings, his cowardice and lapses, and our writers of today are only too proficient in exposing these; but we stood in need of one to tell us how a man may
be lifted far above himself by his sheer force of will.
More striking even than the aviator himself is, in my opinion, RiviÃ¨re, his chief. The latter does not act, himself; he impels to action, breathes into his pilots his own virtue and exacts the utmost from them, constraining them to dare greatly. His iron will admits no flinching, and the least lapse is punished by him. At first sight his severity may seem inhuman and excessive. But its target is not the man himself, whom RiviÃ¨re aspires to mold, but the man's blemishes. In his portrayal of this character we feel the author's profound admiration. I am especially grateful to him for bringing out a paradoxical truth which seems to me of great psychological import; that man's happiness lies not in freedom but in his acceptance of a duty. Each of the characters in this book is wholeheartedly, passionately devoted to that which duty bids him do, and it is in fulfilling this perilous task, and only thus, that he attains contentedness and peace. Reading between the lines we discover that RiviÃ¨re is anything but insensitive (the narrative of his interview with the wife of the lost pilot is infinitely touching) and he needs quite as much courage to give his orders as the pilots need to carry them out.
“To make oneself beloved,” he says, “one need only show pity. I show little pity, or I hide it.... My power sometimes amazes me.” And, again: “Love the men under your orders, but do not let them know it.”
A sense of duty commands RiviÃ¨re in all things,
“the dark sense of duty, greater than that of love.” Man is not to seek an end within himself but to submit and sacrifice his all to some strange thing that commands him and lives through him. It pleases me here to find that selfsame “dark sense” which inspired my Prometheus to his paradox: “Man I love not; I love that which devours him.” This is the mainspring of every act of heroism. “âWe behave,' thought RiviÃ¨re, âas if there were something of higher value than human life ... But what thing?'” And again: “There is perhaps something else something more lasting to be saved; and perhaps it was to save this part of man that RiviÃ¨re was working.” A true saying.
In an age when the idea of heroism seems likely to quit the army, since manly virtues may play no part in those future wars whose horrors are foreshadowed by our scientists, does not aviation provide the most admirable and worthy field for the display of prowess? What would otherwise be rashness ceases to be such when it is part and parcel of an allotted task. The pilot who is forever risking his life may well smile at the current meaning we give to “courage.” I trust that Saint-ExupÃ©ry will permit me to quote an old letter of his dating from the time when he was flying on the Casablanca-Dakar air route.
“I don't know when I shall be back, I have had so much to do for several months, searches for lost airmen, salvage of planes that have come down in hostile territory, and some flights with the Dakar mail.
“I have just pulled off a little exploit; spent two days and nights with eleven Moors and a
mechanic, salving a plane. Alarums and excursions, varied and impressive. I heard bullets whizzing over my head for the first time. So now I know how I behave under such conditions; much more calmly than the Moors. But I also came to understand something which had always puzzled meâwhy Plato (Aristotle?) places courage in the last degree of virtues. It's a concoction of feelings that are not so very admirable. A touch of anger a spice of vanity a lot of obstinacy and a tawdry âsporting' thrill. Above all, a stimulation of one's physical energies which however is oddly out of place One just folds one's arms taking deep breaths across one's opened shirt. Rather a pleasant feeling When it happens at night another feeling creeps into itâof having done something immensely silly. I shall never again admire a merely brave man.”
By way of epigraph I might append to this quotation an aphorism from Quinton's book (which, however, I cannot commend without reserve). “A man keeps, like his love, his courage dark.” Or, better still: “Brave men hide their deeds as decent folk their alms. They disguise them or make excuses for them.”
Saint-ExupÃ©ry in all he tells us speaks as one who has “been through it.” His personal contact with ever-recurrent danger seasons his book with an authentic and inimitable tang. We have had many stories of the War or of imaginary adventures which, if they showed the author as a man of nimble wit, brought smiles to the faces of such old soldiers or genuine adventurers as read them. I admire this work not only on its literary merits
but for its value as a record of realities, and it is the unlikely combination of these two qualities which gives “Night Flight” its quite exceptional importance.
Already, beneath him, through the golden evening, the shadowed hills had dug their furrows and the plains grew luminous with long-enduring light. For in these lands the ground gives off this golden glow persistently, just as, even when winter goes, the whiteness of the snow persists.
Fabien, the pilot bringing the Patagonia air mail from the far south to Buenos Aires, could mark night coming on by certain signs that called to mind the waters of a harborâa calm expanse beneath, faintly rippled by the lazy cloudsâand he seemed to be entering a vast anchorage, an immensity of blessedness.
Or else he might have fancied he was taking a quiet walk in the calm of evening, almost like a shepherd. The Patagonian shepherds move, unhurried, from one flock to another; and he, too, moved from one town to another, the shepherd of those little towns. Every two hours he met another of them, drinking at its riverside or browsing on its plain.
Sometimes, after a hundred miles of steppes as desolate as the sea, he encountered a lonely farmhouse that seemed to be sailing backwards from him in a great prairie sea, with its freight of human lives; and he saluted with his wings this passing ship.
“San Julian in sight. In ten minutes we shall land.”
The wireless operator gave their position to all the stations on the line. From Magellan Strait to Buenos Aires the airports were strung out across fifteen hundred miles and more, but this one led toward the frontiers of night, just as in Africa the last conquered hamlet opens onto the unknown.
The wireless operator handed the pilot a slip of paper: “There are so many storms about that the discharges are fouling my earphones. Shall we stop the night at San Julian?”
Fabien smiled; the sky was calm as an aquarium and all the stations ahead were signaling,
Clear sky: no wind.
“No, we'll go on.”
But the wireless operator was thinking: these storms had lodged themselves somewhere or other, as worms do in a fruit; a fine night, but they would ruin it, and he loathed entering this shadow that was ripe to rottenness.
As he slowed down his engine for the San Julian landing, Fabien knew that he was tired. All that endeared his life to man was looming up to meet him; men's houses, friendly little cafes, trees under which they walk. He was like some conqueror who, in the aftermath of victory, bends down upon his territories and now perceives the humble happiness of men. A need came over Fabien to lay his weapons down and feel the aching burden of his limbs-for even our misfortunes are a part of our belongingsâand to stay a simple dweller here, watching from his window
a scene that would never change. This tiny village, he could gladly have made friends with it; the choice once made, a man accepts the issue of his venture and can love the life. Like love, it hems him in. Fabien would have wished to live a long while here_here to possess his morsel of eternity. These little towns, where he lived an hour, their gardens girdled by old walls over which he passed seemed something apart and everlasting. Now the village was rising to meet the plane, opening out toward him. And there, he mused, were friendliness and gentle girls, white napery spread in quiet homes; all that is slowly shaped toward eternity. The village streamed past beneath his wings, yielding the secrets of closed gardens that their walls no longer guarded. He landed; and now he knew that he had seen nothing at all, only a few men slowly moving amongst their stones. The village kept, by its mere immobility, the secret of its passions and withheld its kindly charm; for, to master that, he would have needed to give up an active life.
The ten minutes' halt was ended and Fabien resumed his flight. He glanced back toward San Julian; all he now could see was a cluster of lights, then stars, then twinkling star dust that vanished, tempting him for the last time.
“I can't see the dials; I'll light up.”
He touched the switches, but the red light falling from the cockpit lamps upon the dial hands was so diluted with the blue evening glow that they did not catch its color. When he passed his fingers close before a bulb, they were hardly tinged at all.
But night was rising like a tawny smoke and already the valleys were brimming over with it. No longer were they distinguishable from the plains. The villages were lighting up, constellations that greeted each other across the dusk. And, at a touch of his finger, his flying-lights flashed back a greeting to them. The earth grew spangled with light signals as each house Ut its star, searching the vastness of the night as a lighthouse sweeps the sea. Now every place that sheltered human life was sparkling. And it rejoiced him to enter into this one night with a measured slowness, as into an anchorage.
He bent down into the cockpit; the luminous dial hands were beginning to show up. The pilot read their figures one by one; all was going well. He felt at ease up here, snugly ensconced. He passed his fingers along a steel rib and felt the stream of life that flowed in it; the metal did not vibrate, yet it was alive. The engine's five-hundred horse-power bred in its texture a very gentle current, fraying its ice-cold rind into a velvety bloom. Once again the pilot in full flight experienced neither giddiness nor any thrill; only the mystery of metal turned to living flesh.